Directed By: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay By: David Mamet
Based upon the novel by Barry Reed
Produced By: David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck
Cast: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, James Mason, Jack Warden, Milo O’Shea
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 127 minutes
Review Date: February 4, 2011
The Verdict, only weak by title, is a spectacular film. It is an amalgamation of many forms, in one respect an action feature and in another a thriller. Throw in a little bit of romance and maybe even a dash of noir and you have yet to scratch the surface. Above all, though, it conveys a deeply embedded belief that with trial and perseverance, redemption is a powerful deterrent to desperation and sadness.
Paul Newman plays Frank, a down-and-out litigator who’s only real work is curbing the daily hangover. Having worked a pitiful 3 cases in the last 4 years, the man has all but given up on his job. When his legal adviser and close friend Mickey (Jack Warden) hooks him up with another gig, he reluctantly obliges. I stress obliges, as the man has little to no direction: His office is strewn with empty beer cans and misfiled papers, the blood still fresh on the walls from a drunken misstep.
Frank has been hired to represent the plaintiff, a comatose woman who is the victim of medical malpractice. The defendant: The most powerful doctors of a Catholic hospital in Boston, headed by the Archdiocese. In an effort to expose little of their most obvious malpractice, the Church offers a hefty sum of money to settle out of court but Frank denies the offer. He sits with a large check in one hand and in the other, polaroids of the hapless victim. Taking the money would be the easy way out and would most certainly qualm his fiscal problems, but why not settle for more?
For the first time in many years, Frank feels confidence. This feeling, unfamiliar to him for such a long time, sends his nerves into an electric frenzy. With the aid of his new paramour Laura (Charlotte Rampling) and a remarkably powerful key witness, he is entirely positive the case is in his back pocket. Again, the defendant’s attorney Ed (James Mason), insists he take the cash settlement and walk. No such thing, and off to court they go.
The film is methodically slow, but that works in its favor. By adding only a single piece of wood to the fire at a time, director Sidney Lumet and Writer David Mamet have crafted a drama that is always burning at a constant temperature. By ratcheting up the tension at such a deliberate pace, it allows us to invest ourselves in the characters and truly understand what’s happening before us. I often find myself bored by courtroom dramas, either too theatrical or logistical for the common moviegoer, but this one hits a happy medium between the two.
When Frank realizes his key witness was bought off by the defendant and his team, his excitement devolves into the desperation that plagued him before. He looks to Laura for empathy, but she offers him none. This is the most important scene in the film because, like alcohol, she was supposed to make things alright and tell things would be okay. When she didn’t, it forced him to realize that the world around him keeps moving even when he chooses to stand still. Let’s call it an epiphany of sorts. It’s now up to Frank to get his act together, get the job done, and bring justice to those who deserve it.
The performances all around are great, but Newman really shines here. He layers his character with a heavy coat of sadness and despair, but it never feels preachy or dogged. I almost feel as if his character were always treading on a pond of thin ice, below it an icy deep of madness. On one side is his current life, fraught with a whole lot of nothing, and on the other, just something. This something, whether it be the money or the urge to do something right, didn’t matter so much as the act of doing. To some, this may convey the apathy of the lawyer at work, but to me, it elucidated the reality of the burdened man: We must step outside our comfort zones to truly achieve happiness. This is important filmmaking.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.